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Year in review: The best new streaming shows of 2021
2021 was a phenomenal year for television. Hit shows like Succession, The Expanse, Ted Lasso, Big Mouth, The Great, Servant, and more came back strong with some standout new seasons. Even more impressive, though, was the seemingly endless supply of stellar new series. Virtually every streaming service had a strong offering, including global hits like Squid Game on Netflix, a slate of Marvel shows on Disney Plus, and Apple TV Plus’ continued rise as a premium streamer. So, which were the best new shows of 2021?
Below, you’ll find our picks for the 10 standout new series that dominated in 2021. These include sleeper hits, blockbuster knockouts, and just plain solid entertainment. While a few cable shows like Yellowjackets, Chucky, and The White Lotus were among the very best new shows of 2021, we’ve limited this list to streaming exclusives.
See also: The best streaming services
The top 10 new shows of 2021
Foundation (Apple TV Plus)
What if one could use advanced mathematics to predict the future based on human behavior? That’s the basic premise of Apple TV Plus’ Foundation. From there, the series — based on Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi literary classic — builds into a massive intergalactic drama that’s among the best sci-fi of the last few years.
The series follows an emerging foundation meant to mitigate the fallout of a dying empire as well as the ruling class of dictators, a cabal of clones who rule the galaxy with an iron fist, in this smart and thrilling new series.
Hacks (HBO Max)
HBO Max’s Hacks was a total knockout. When a legendary stand-up comic’s social cachet starts to wane, she works with a younger comic facing her own image issues after an insensitive tweet gets her into hot water. The show offered a thoughtful and hilarious look at generational differences, the often volatile world of stand-up comedy, and the value of punching up.
Hacks was thankfully renewed for a second season. Jean Smart was an absolute treasure in both Hacks and HBO’s higher-profile Mare of Easttown, which aired concurrently for a few weeks.
Midnight Mass (Netflix)
Mike Flanagan proved once again why he’s becoming Netflix’s go-to guy for horror miniseries. Following The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, Midnight Mass tells the story of a small island community. A man returns home to the island after serving time in prison, to be met by a less-than-enthusiastic reception.
His arrival coincides with that of a mysterious new parish priest. The new arrivals bring with them renewed divisions among the townsfolk as mysterious and supernatural occurrences threaten their way of life. Midnight Mass offers a dark and intelligent look at grief, guilt, and faith.
Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)
Only Murders in the Building is one of Hulu’s best original series, and certainly one of the best new shows of 2021 too. A hilarious send-up of America’s obsession with true crime, the series follows three huge fans of a Serial-like podcast as they come together to investigate a murder in their own Manhattan apartment complex. As they get closer to the truth, the three realize they all have their own secrets, and even their own ties to the murder they’re investigating.
With pitch-perfect performances from Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez, who have undeniable and magnetic chemistry together onscreen, Only Murders in the Building is a binge-worthy treat.
Reservation Dogs (FX on Hulu)
Shot on the Muscogee Nation reservation in Oklahoma, Reservation Dogs follows a group of teens staging minor heists to save up and escape to the near-mythical promise of a better life in California. The show has tremendous heart and is hilarious while still addressing the immense inequality in America.
Co-created by Academy Award winner Taika Waititi, the show boasts all Indigenous writers and directors, as well as a majority Indigenous cast and production team. Renewed for a second season, Reservation Dogs was a critical darling and a hit with audiences. It very much earns its place among the best new shows of 2021.
Squid Game (Netflix)
Death game shows and movies are nothing new, but they still have the power to completely blow us away. That was especially the case with Squid Game, one of the best new shows of 2021, and one of the most impactful. For a few weeks there, you really couldn’t escape its hold on the entire world. It even inspired a playful beef between its creator and NBA superstar LeBron James.
The Korean original was a global hit for Netflix, and for good reason. It follows a group of contestants participating in a series of games for a huge cash prize. There’s a catch though. If you lose one of the games, you die. It’s brutal, bloody, and quite moving, and it offers a clever critique of capitalism and the way heartbreaking inequality and cruelty are baked into how we live.
Sweet Tooth (Netflix)
Based on Jeff Lemire’s groundbreaking Vertigo comic book, Sweet Tooth was a major win for Netflix in 2021. Blending sci-fi with moving family drama in a surreal post-apocalyptic setting, the series takes place after a virus has wiped out much of humanity. The virus — known as the Sick — also somehow kickstarted the birth of animal-human hybrid children.
In season one, we follow the 10-year-old hybrid Gus, who has survived mostly in isolation with his father. When his father dies, Gus tags along with the lone wanderer Jepperd, hoping the man will help him find his mother in a strange new world he’s never known.
The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime Video)
Amazon’s stunning miniseries, The Underground Railroad, literalizes the historical Underground Railroad. The network of abolitionists who worked to help secure freedom for individuals escaping slavery by providing shelter and access to secret routes here becomes a genuine railroad built underground, tracks and all, for the same purpose.
Creator and director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk) adapts the novel of the same name by Colson Whitehead. Using magical realism, breathtaking cinematography, and a beautiful score by Nicholas Brittell, Jenkins and his gifted cast tell a haunting, beautiful, disturbing, dream-like story about America’s shameful past.
WandaVision (Disney Plus)
Disney invested hard in MCU television on its dedicated streamer, Disney Plus, in early 2021. The first MCU original streaming show released on Disney Plus remains one of its best (although Loki and Hawkeye have given it a run for its money). WandaVision explores Wanda’s emotional state following the events of Avengers: Endgame as she copes with the loss of Vision.
Retreating into the illusion of classic sitcoms, she struggles to contain her pain as magical forces conspire against her. It’s a smart and moving addition to the MCU and allows us to spend some quality time with characters who haven’t previously gotten a whole lot of screen time.
Y: The Last Man (FX on Hulu)
Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s celebrated post-apocalyptic comic series Y: The Last Man finally made it to the small screen on FX, on Hulu this year, after over a decade of failed attempts. It was sadly canceled partway through its first season — delays due in part to COVID-19 meant that FX had to act fast on contractual options for actors to return. The viewership just didn’t warrant another season.
Yet, the show was a true standout of 2021, telling the story of one of the last men standing following a mysterious global event that wiped out every person and animal with a Y chromosome — all but Yorick Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand. The show offered a thoughtful portrait of gender politics in America wrapped in a thrilling adventure.
- Brand New Cherry Flavor: A young filmmaker trying to sell her movie in Hollywood gets mixed up with predatory producers and gruesome revenge curses in this bizarre and inventive Netflix horror miniseries.
- Dr. Death: Based on a true story and the podcast of the same name, Dr. Death tells the story of a star neurosurgeon whose colleagues begin to notice disturbing patterns among his patients’ health outcomes.
- Loki: Marvel put out five solid new shows in 2021, and Loki’s adventures in the Multiverse were among Disney Plus’ best outings for the year.
- Schmigadoon: A couple whose relationship is on the rocks, go on a hike and find themselves trapped in the bizarre town of Schmigadoon, where the rules of old Hollywood musicals apply, and they have to find true love to escape.
- Wheel of Time: Every episode of Wheel of Time seems to get more absurd than the last. Amazon’s fantasy epic is admittedly uneven and more than a little silly, but it’s also hard to resist.